Stealing the Future

StealingtheFuture_m_webUtopian and dystopian writings often have a great appeal to those of us who consider ourselves to be working towards a better world. If that chimes with you, then you might want to know about Stealing the Future, written by a good friend of Rhizome, Max Hertzberg. In Max’s own words:

There are quite a few novels describing utopian societies, particularly in the science fiction genre (Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed, Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy), but it’s rare to come across a book that doesn’t just attempt to describe a utopia set up in a new environment (new planet, new continent, ‘uninhabited’ island etc) but actually attempts to chart the progress of a society like ours to one with more utopian properties. Stealing the Future is an attempt to close that gap – an attempt to describe that phase of hard work, hope and (seemingly?) insurmountable challenges. It’s a thought experiment: how could the East Germany of 1989 go from Communist dictatorship to something much more equitable, much fairer and more just than we even dare dream is possible?

The book’s supported and enhanced by a whole load of related articles on the website. It’ll be launched at the Anarchist Bookfair next month. Happy reading!



Sustainable Activism Weekend Workshop

Where? Claverham, near Bristol
Cost? Sliding scale of £15 – £100
When? Fri 19 (pm) – Sunday 21 June 2015

When we think of mounting inequalities, eco-systemic collapse, runaway climate change, and the rise of the Right – the problems we face can seem insurmountable. No matter what we do, it never seems to be enough. Change seems to require such immense effort that no rest is permitted. The result is paradoxical: an activist culture of burn out, disillusionment and high drop out rates.

If this resonates with you, if you have felt or feel on the edge of burn-out and want to develop skills to avoid it, join us for a nourishing weekend of personal and collective reflection on effective activism and personal sustainability.

This two-day residential training was borne out of ‘Sustaining Resistance: Empowering Renewal’ a 10 day residential training developed and delivered at Ecodharma in the Catalunyan Pyrenees.

The introductory training applies ecological/systems thinking and holistic-participatory learning to the practice of activism and the building of social movements. It offers both a space of reflection and practical methods for engaging in the inner work that underpins effective activism for social and ecological justice. Themes that will be explored include:

  • Building group dynamics that support sustainable activism
  • Avoiding disillusionment/staying inspired
  • What is ‘enough’ and how to manage it
  • Self care and how to integrate it into our daily lives

Nate Eisenstadt and Claire Milne, both of whom are co-facilitators of Sustaining Resistance at Ecodharma

More info / apply?
Please email claire[at] to request a (short) application form.

Sustaining Resistance, Empowering Renewal: Tools for Effective and Sustainable Activism

A 12 day residential workshop in rural Devon
11th – 22nd May 2015

This workshop offers personal and collective tools to help make our activism more effective. Theworkshop aims to help us stay inspired, nourished, empowered and creative. It offers space to reflect and analyse, helping us to stay involved for the long haul, create personal sustainability and bring continuity to our groups and movements. It aims to explore ways of working which keep our groups sustainable and effective in the struggle against social and economic injustice and ecological destruction.

The workshop provides an opportunity to get away from our busy lives and take stock, taking time to reflect on our activist experiences and history and to identify and draw upon sources of nourishment, inspiration, creativity and resilience, and develop skills that can help us make changes that will support personal sustainability and wellbeing. It also provides an opportunity to develop skills for organising and working in groups that will help avoid a burnout culture in our groups and networks. The workshop venue, on the edge of Dartmoor, provides ideal conditions for this reflection and renewal.

The course is offered by the ecodharma collective and Seeds for Change. Places are limited.

Application deadline 27th March 2015.

For more information and an application form please call 01865 403 134 or email

Organise resistance not compliance. Build mutual support you come across an inspirational resource. Today tweeted the link to London Coalition Against Poverty’sBuilding mutual support and organising in our communities” pamphlet.

If you’ve ever struggled to organise in an effective and inclusive way, there’s something here for you.

Full of stories from independent community groups. Read it! Then share it with others. It’ll be going up on our Resources page.

Skills building with the London Cycling Campaign

A few weeks ago Matthew and I facilitated a one day workshop for the London Cycling Campaign. It was for their newly recruited group of volunteer Campaign Organisers and local group members who will be working hard on the Space4Cycling campaign in the run up to the local elections in May. This aims to get local candidates across every borough committing to specific demands to make cycling safer in their neighbourhoods.

The brief was to design and facilitate a day that built their confidence and skills in lobbying local candidates, communicating campaign asks to their local community and getting into local and social media. Some participants had been involved with LCC for a while, some were new to the organisation and the campaign. Most participants hadn’t met each other, so time getting to grips with the campaign and getting to know each other also had to be factored in.

LCC posted a good summary of what we did and their thoughts on how it went on their blog, written up straight after the event, in a much timelier manner! I thought we’d add a few more reflections from our perspective and a selection of comments from participants.

We designed the day to be very interactive and participant led – lots of discussion and activities in workshops and smaller groups, plus a big chunk of open space. Many participants said this was the best thing about the day – it enabled them to meet other and share experience and expertise. Comments included “my head is buzzing”, “it was intense and I am tired” and “the best thing was ‘doing it’”.

However on reflection we might have leaned too far towards active participation and we didn’t include a presentation about the campaign and their role in it. Although they had all had a written briefing in advance a number of participants felt that a quick update on the campaign at the start of the day would have been helpful and a couple of people still felt confused about what they were there for by the end of the day. This made us ponder that perhaps we can be so determined to do things differently and make things participative that we forget that sometimes a plenary presentation is exactly what’s needed to set the scene.

Plus, while lots of people really valued the open space session and felt they had necessary conversations relevant to their groups, others were less sure. A couple of participants felt that it was a bit “too open”, not structured enough, and that conversations veered off into irrelevant tangents. We’ve been facilitating a few open space sessions recently and having a few discussions about them. Pondering a blog post soon on the joys and challenges of facilitating open space, so watch this space! As always, we’re keen to hear your views.


Training activists with Labour Behind the Label

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend with Labour Behind the Label a Bristol based co-operative who campaign to support garment workers. They focus on efforts worldwide to improve working conditions and campaign on a range of issues, from getting compensation for the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster to fighting for a living wage.

They have recently recruited a group of Regional Co-ordinators across England to raise awareness in their local communities of the issues garment workers face and to encourage people to take action. They invited Rhizome to help facilitate a two day training workshop for the volunteers to develop their confidence and skills in speaking to people, running awareness raising workshops for local groups and putting on public actions to generate interest.

The workshop was a mix of information giving about garment worker’s rights and the changes Labour Behind the Label are campaigning for and skills building and practice activities. We practiced giving out leaflets to members of the public, adapting information for different audiences, and designing and delivering a mini-workshop. By the end of the weekend the group has also generated a number of ideas for public actions and shared experience of putting on successful fundraising events. The group took well to this “learning by doing” approach and feedback was generally pretty positive, though the task of delivering a workshop was quite challenging for some. One piece of feedback was that more modelling or examples of good practice would have been helpful, which did make me reflect on how I set up the task and think about how I could incorporate this next time I run a similar activity.


Common values, Common Cause

I spent a stimulating day at the Common Cause Assembly in London on Friday discussing the case for working with values and what this might mean in practice. Common Cause is an initiative led by the Public Interest Research Centre that grew out of a report published by a coalition of NGOs in 2010 that makes the case for civil society organisations to find common cause in working to strengthen a set of ‘intrinsic’ values that they suggest underpin the work of the sector, regardless of what particular issues individual organisations focus on.

Common Cause draws on a seam of academic research from psychology around human motivations, values and behaviour. This argues that people are motivated by their values, which influence their attitudes which in turn have an impact on their behaviour. Research shows that there are a set of consistently occurring human values throughout human societies which can be distilled into two broad concepts – ‘intrinsic’ values, which are values that are inherently rewarding to pursue (e.g. connection with nature, concern for others, social justice, creativity) and ‘extrinsic’ values, which are centred on external approval or rewards (e.g. wealth, social status, social power and authority).

This matters to civil society organisations pressing for change because people who prioritise intrinsic values are more likely to be politically engaged, concerned about social justice and demonstrate more environmentally friendly behaviours – generally all the ‘’progressive” or “good” things that we want people to do! We all hold all of the values to different degrees and in different ways during our lives, but the research also suggests that values can be strengthened, like muscles. So the more these intrinsic values are appealed to and engaged, the stronger they will get, and the ripple effect on our attitudes and actions will follow.

I spent much of the day in a workshop looking at how we might strengthen these intrinsic values in how we engage with others, and had some thought provoking conversations around what values mean in terms of facilitating and working with groups. How do we demonstrate intrinsic values such as helpfulness, honesty, equality and universalism when facilitating? Is it just about trying to model these values in our behaviour and interaction with the group? Is it being mindful of the values we want to encourage in creating the activities we run? Should we make a conscious effort to find out about the values of the people in the group and seek to meet them there, but nudge them towards intrinsic values if extrinsic values like authority and ambition are displayed? Is it right to attempt to challenge and change people’s values and attitudes? In terms of groups there was also an interesting open space session on the value of deep, immersive learning experiences vs. short workshops or training sessions in developing values driven action. We didn’t get very far in answering any of these questions, but had a great time thinking and debating. I’d be really interested in others reflections and experiences on this.

One other thing I found inspiring on the Common Cause website is a TED Talk by Dave Meslin, ‘The antidote to apathy’, arguing that people don’t fail to act out of apathy, but because there are significant external barriers to getting involved in our communities. If we break down these barriers we can make it much easier for people to act on their intrinsic values.

From novice to ninja

I’m doing a little bit of helping out with a project to support people through their journey to being better informed and more skilled activists. The project goes by the name of A.S.K for the World| Activist Skills and Knowledge.

The premise is simple enough. Help people to asess their own knowledge and abilities on a scale of ‘novice’ to ‘practitioner’ to ‘expert’ to ‘ninja’, then provide them with the resources to learn, develop and progress up the levels. The clever bit (and the tricky bit) is that whilst resources means all the usual web links, books, videos etc, it also, and crucially, includes a community of people who can mentor and coach each other.

Novice on climate science? Well, eventually you’ll be able to connect with practitioners, experts and hopefully ninja climate science folk who can do their stuff and give you the support you need. Peer-to-peer development. Got to be worth a shot.

The project’s at an early stage – a bit rough and ready and lots more work to do. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts,


Where’s the tipping point? Where’s the breaking point?

Here’s a taste of the latest NCIA newsletter:

“A friend once said to me that my problem was that my ‘circle of concern’ was wider than my ‘circle of influence’. Maybe this explains why I spend so much time being cross? But consider the following. Over the last week I have heard that:

  • Bob Diamond of Barclay’s Bank resigns in disgrace but is given £1.5M and a nice pension to make him feel better;
  • A spokesperson for an official report on school examination boards says on the radio that “competition is driving down quality”;
  • The director of Lambeth’s Children’s Services declares that paying lots of money (£200k per child per year) to private and charitable care homes does not buy quality services;
  • Homelessness is up by 20% in one year;
  • The charity Kids Company has started feeding centres for children and families – up to 70 at one centre alone – to stick a finger in the dyke for the 2.2 million children living in poverty.

All this stuff concerns our world of voluntary action and history will ask – in looking back – what we all did about it. We’re currently doing a tiny bit of research to try and sort out who, in the VCS, can be called an ‘activist’ in these terrible times. What’s coming up, again and again, are groups that we are calling ‘(maybe) getting ready for activism’. These are mostly professionally oriented, obsessed with funding, overtly complaining about what is happening but still playing the game, trying to keep their seat at the table but feeling deeply uneasy about the cuts and compromises that are being demanded. These groups are the backbone of the historic voluntary sector. In truth they are being decimated by the commissioners, the SERCO’s, the NACRO’s and the rest of the corporate charity raiders. Whether they decide to bite back or give in will be an important sign of just how lost we are in the fight for social justice and a radical alternative.”

They also report on a recent event in the north-east:

“Volunteering as dissidence gets an airing
Another sign that dissidence is starting to appear on the radar is indicated by an event that took place in Newcastle on 3rd July. ‘Hearing Uncomfortable Messages: Volunteering as Activism/Dissidence’ was even mounted by the ESRC, not known for its radical agenda. NCIA’s Sue Robson did a storming presentation on the role of community development as radical activism. Her powerpoint presentation is available if you want to get the flavour of this – we can email you a copy if you ask – “

Creativity in Action

Just in from some friends:

Creativity in Action is an experimental workshop hosted by the D.I.Y. Collective, Wednesday 11th July – Friday 13th July.

This is a two-and-half-day experimental workshop based out of a London location. From 6pm Wednesday 11th July till 8pm Friday 13th July a group of curious and adventurous beings will:

  • Experiment with London – We’ll invent our own games and play with new forms. We will re-envision and transform London.
  • Explore what ‘DIY’ means – investigate through play and practical action what DIY can mean, looking at ideas of autonomy and agency
  • Build affinity with each other – meet new and old friends, learn to work creatively together, and have fun in the process.

What will happen?
Half workshop, half experiment, we will first get to know each other and learn about key elements of reclaiming space, taking action together and collaborative group work. The second part will be entirely group-led – we will work together to decide how and where we’d like to make a space (or spaces) in London autonomous. We’ll plan how to do it, gather resources, then do it together. We’ve no idea what we’ll come up with – only together can we imagine where we’ll end up and how we’ll  end up there.

Who’s it for?
Have you ever had that feeling at a demo, a protest or a direct action that the space around you, maybe a field, a road, a shop or a churchyard, has transformed into a truly public space, that it’s now your land, that it’s everyone’s land, that usually unseen societal pressures have been lifted – just for a moment? This workshop is for anyone who has felt that kind of beautiful connection before or wants to feel it for the first time. Maybe you spent time at one of the Occupy camps, maybe you were part of Climate Camp, UKUncut, or any one of the groups that form part of our history of reclaiming ourselves and the world we live in. Or maybe you see new potentials in existing spaces everywhere you look but don’t know how to get started. No previous experience is required, only a body, an imagination, and a willingness to share.

Who are we?
The DIY collective have a background in reclaiming autonomous space and collaborative group work. We are artists and activists, wanderers and dreamers.

Where do I sign up?
Places are limited, so please book a place by emailing and tell us why you want to come. The event itself is free. Food will cost £10 or £15.

A note on legality
While the organisers of this event have no control over the legality of what the group will create, we will encourage the group to strongly consider the accessibility and consequences of taking illegal action. Each individual there will be encouraged to stay responsible for their own relationship with the law. There will be a thorough legal briefing.


  • email –
  • twitter: @diycollective
  • facebook: DIY Collective London


Civil disobedience, hard work and time

We tend to forget how long it takes for the dreamed of, planned for, struggled for change to actually take place. It is very easy for activists to feel disheartened and defeated after the early exhilarating stages of a campaign, or the excitement of an act of civil disobedience. It’s a long slog and much of it is just sheer bloody minded persistence. The anniversary this week of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 reminds us how very long it can take. I don’t just mean the 68 years from 1932 till the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed in 2000, but all the centuries of struggle by poor and oppressed people for equal rights to the land, appropriated by the wealthy and powerful for leisure and profit. The line of dissent runs through the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th century, which conjures the names of Wat Tyler and John Ball, through to Wynstanley and the True Levellers in the 17th, with radical writers such as Blake and Thomas Paine in the 18th, and the 19th century liberals and radicals who founded the Open Spaces Society keeping the energy flowing. We’re talking 700 years and there is still work to be done on the issue of open access for all.

The trespass on Kinder was an act of civil disobedience. It was planned and advertised and organised, one group coming from Manchester, another from Sheffield. Hundreds made the walk, there were some scuffles with keepers, six people were arrested and charged with riotous assembly and five imprisoned. But a few weeks later thousands did the same, such was the inspiration and strength that it produced, and many years later new laws on access to open land began to be drafted. The centuries of protest and writing and preaching and talking and pamphleteering seemed to culminate in this iconic action – a few hundred men and some women (who were kept back from the actual trespass) speaking truth to power, saying it is our land too. Rosa Parks on a seat on a bus, black students at a lunch counter, the crowds in Tahrir Square last spring, Occupy at St Paul’s – all are events which, like the crest of a strong wave, contain beneath them the persistence of many people fighting for change over a long time, and it is still ongoing. It is not just the act of civil disobedience alone which changes things, it is the work, the planning, the effort, the time – and the support and desire for justice of those who cannot take part in this one event – which the act represents.

Like many other actions of resistance and dissent, the trespass was remembered in song, “The Manchester Rambler” by Ewan MacColl. A version, combining another song, by John Tams and Barry Coope is worth a listen, not only for their beautiful voices but for the line “nothing changes, it all stays the same” ringing like a warning bell.


Giving Up on Environmentalism

The destructive power of hope? The futility of environmentalism? Sustainability as preserving the world we know, a “project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat”? Dave Pollard’s latest post Giving Up on Environmentalism over at how to save the world, in which he extensively quotes Paul Kingsnorth is a challenging read, but well, well worth the time.

If there’s any truth in what Dave and Paul say (and I think there is, though oddly it doesn’t lead me to want to give up on my environmentalism), what’s the meaningful work for activists to do?

In praise of activism

I’ve been feeling a little guilty about recent posts on the Occupy movement. Not because I’ve said anything that on reflection I disagree with, but because I know that I’ve been offering a negative critique of both choice of tactics and the robustness of the actions so far without balancing it with a positive critique. So it’s good to read a positive assessment of activist organising from Chris Corrigan and be reminded that whilst, as a community of changemakers, we could undoubtedly do things much better, we’re pretty damn good at it most of the time. Whilst not Occupy-specific, in his post The activist model of action Chris makes an upbeat assessment of those working for change and shares some observations about how to organise most effectively:

When you are working for community change, there is often more at stake than working within organizational settings.  Leadership in organizations, especially commercial organizations tends to focus on efficiency, production and increasing revenues.  Within communities, change is often precipitated by the threat to lives or livelihoods, addressing violence or inequality and improving complex indicators of health and well-being.  Those needs have a way of focusing activist on doing things well, and people who don’t work in this world would do well to learn from those that do.

Starhawk has also been blogging from the Occupy frontline in the USA, and finding real power, energy and inspiration on the streets. Despite my reservations about the choice of tactics, like Climate Camp, Occupy protests are providing a focus and a way in to people who are just starting their activist journey.

I particularly appreciated Chris’s words on activist’s power and privilege, an issue that plagues parts of our movement, and is deservedly getting more attention nowadays than when I first got involved:

If you come to a change initiative with privilege (ie you have power within the system) the best thing you can do to enable change is to check in with your privilege and step out of the conversation to create space for new leaders and new forms of leadership to come forward.  Asserting your privilege closes space down.  Becoming an ally to change initiatives is a powerful and important way to support emerging solutions and to allow leadership to come from anywhere.  People with power and privilege can open lots of space if we get real about how our power works.

Reporting back from Peace News

Just back from a couple of days at the Peace News Summer Gathering. On Sunday I ran a couple of workshops – the first on public speaking and the second an introduction to nonviolent direct action. I’m happy that they were well received, though as always there are lessons to learn.

One of those lessons is about assumptions. This is the third year I’ve run the public speaking session, and it’s only ever attracted a handful of people. Then this year 19 people showed up. I’d planned for a lot less so it was a pleasant surprise, but one accompanied by some very quick recalculations of the mental arithmetic of workshop design – size of groups, time taken for feedback from small groups and other exercises, stretching materials between a larger number of people and so on….

On the final morning of the Camp I was facilitating a meeting on People Power, focused on learning from the Arab revolutions and looking at our own organising and activism in the light of these momentous events.

Gabriel Carlyle, Peace News co-editor, gave a short but incisive overview of the build up of events in Egypt (read what he wrote on the subject on the Peace News blog). He reminded us that the “Facebook and Twitter revolution” wasn’t as instantaneous as it might have been portrayed in the media, but was the result of a decade or more of capacity building and mobilising, much of which seemed to fail abjectly at the time but played an integral part in the success of the uprising a few years, months or days later.

There were many highlights, but the nonviolent direct action trainer in me homed in on his reference to the 15,000 people trained in the philosophy and techniques of nonviolence over the months before events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. 15,000, trained in groups of 100. I’ve been training people in nonviolent techniques since about 1994 and until Monday if I could claim 1500 trainees in that time I’d have been happy. Seems like if we want a revolution we need to step up our game. Over a million of us marched against the war on Iraq. The nonviolence trainers I’m networked with probably managed to train just a few hundred people over that period, working flat-out, at a time when the population was outraged and wanting to act….

As a consequence of Gabriel’s presentation, I finally got round to buying a copy of Tweets from Tahrir, the story of the Egyptian told in the form of the tweets of those taking part. Powerful stuff – get yourself a copy.

Then the participants spent time in groups imagining themselves 10 years hence after our own people-power revolution had happened and piecing together the highlights, and then telling the stories. It seemed important to start with a positive. From there we began to look at whether those present, and the groups, networks and movements they were part of had a role to play in bringing about profound change in the social order, and if so what that role could be. A useful discussion. It’s certainly got me thinking. 15,000 people, eh?

Re-energising activists

A week ago, I spent the day in the company of NGO Capacity Building Forum folk, facilitatingWordle: Capacity Building a day of Open Space and skill sharing. The theme for the day was Re-energising and Re-motivating Activists, and it drew a crowd from 14 or so NGOs that work with grassroots networks of activists – individuals or groups. There was certainly a lot of energy and motivation in the room. As always with the Forum, ideas, problems, experience and solutions were shared freely and everyone went away with new contacts and new ideas to try out.

The format was simple – a morning with a couple of hour-long Open Space conversations, followed by a sharing of insights, issues and themes which the group then ranked to give us 2 top priorities to work on in the afternoon. Over lunch I worked with 3 others from the group to develop these 2 ideas into 90 minute skill sharing sessions to explore those themes, which we then delivered in 2 co-facilitation pairs. 

The idea that emerged top of the pile was how campaigning organisations could work together more effectively. The next choice was around activists working effectively as part of their local communities – in other words being active in a community rather than being a slightly separate community of activists. Both were delivered using a mix of tools, but we set out to make them as experiential as possible after a morning of talk, with one session drawing on forum theatre whilst the other used a fishbowl roleplay.

I’d asked one of my co-facilitators to run the evaluation in advance and the technique used was one I hadn’t come across before. He drew a large hand, fingers outspread, on a piece of flipchart paper and asked everyone to write upto 1 comment per finger on post-it notes. Each finger represents a different view of the event and it’s outcomes:

  • thumb – thumbs up, so something that was positive or ‘cool’
  • index finger – used for pointing, so something you’d like to point out – could be positive, negative or neither
  • middle finger – improvements, things that worked less well for you
  • ring finger – think engagement rings, so something that you’re now committed to doing
  • little finger – what you’re hooked on – an idea that grabbed your attention and got you interested

The evaluation was very affirming all told. Here’s a sample of responses:

  • thumb – the Open Space and the opportunity to meet and network
  • index finger – “Role plays hard but makes you think issues from different angle”, “Best open space I’ve done”, “Should replicate [the event] for activists”, “Need more action planning”
  • middle finger – more skills sessions, some complaints about the room we were using (it was hard to keep it well-ventilated), and requests for a more specific topic, were amongst the suggested improvements
  • ring finger – “Open Space”, “shaking up existing groups”, “learning more facilitation techniques”, “encourage activists linking up”
  • little finger – lots of excitement about storytelling (the topic of one of the morning’s conversations), and connecting activists in diverse communities and in more personal relationships

A small working group went away tasked to make th next event happen later this year. As always, if you want to hear about NGO Capacity Building Forum events, drop us a line and we’ll ensure you get on the email list

Taking action for activists

I’m an unashamed fan (and user) of Riseup, the Seattle-based autonomous tech collective. Here’s an item from their latest email bulletin – a nice bit of action to protect activism.

We Fought the Law, and We Won

(warning: legal stuff specific to the United States)

What do right-wing churches, kiss-ins, homophobic lawyers, and Riseup have in common? They were all involved in “Mount Hope Baptist Church v.” in US Federal court. The short story: we kicked ass.

After a right-wing church subpoenaed the account records of several Riseup users, we went to court on behalf of these users to defend their right to anonymous speech. By winning our case, Riseup has established an important precedent in US Federal court. Riseup’s legal victory is important because it strengthens our ability to defend the anonymity of Riseup users.

The legal system in the US has consistently ruled that the ability to speak anonymously is an important part of the right to free speech. However, there is a bit of a catch-22: when someone tries to identify you online, how can you defend your right to anonymous speech if defending your anonymity in court reveals your identity? At the moment, this is untested law in the US, and some courts have ruled that internet sites cannot protect the anonymity of their users without the users coming forward themselves. Our success in defending the right of users to remain anonymous, on their behalf, helps to establish a vital precedent in the US: you don’t lose your right to anonymous speech when you go online.

Google also received subpoenas as part of the same case, and turned over their gmail information without any attempts by Google to defend them. Legally, online service providers can receive subpoenas and hand over data without even informing the individuals that their data was requested. Riseup would like to thank movement lawyers for the long hours put into this case. Without you, the world would be a scarier place.

Thanks to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Lawyer’s Guild, and our very own Sunbird. We would also like to thank the opposing counsel for suggesting that the Riseup users in this case don’t deserve protection because their speech was not “patriotic” free speech. Hilarity ensued. We wish you safe travels back to the bizarro world where you came from. More details about the activist action in Michigan.

Two worlds collide on one small planet (or getting cross over culture)

Here at Rhizome we talk a lot about activism, though we like to think we have quite a broad view of what that actually means . We see it as both the more obviously political ‘campaigning’ work and the building of alternatives, building community. What’s one without the other, right?

Not for everyone. This week I engaged with a discussion on the Transition Network website. In fact I kicked off the comments on a piece about how more and more transition initiatives were interacting with activist groups and how this was worthy of more reflection and discussion. Right there you can see where I might have come at it from – the separation of transition from activism as if the 2 communities operated in total isolation with no cross over. From the response my thoughts received it seems like some folk wish they did, but I get ahead of myself….

It’s all placards and balaclavas

I posted a comment in which I tried (badly perhaps, I’ll let you judge – feedback always welcome) to express my feeling that there was an artificial difference being created between activism and transition-type work, that most, if not all, of the activists I know did both – perhaps not formally under the banner of transition, but transition-style community and resilience building. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of things like creating housing and workers co-ops, involvement in permaculture projects, community development work and so much more. The response wasn’t exactly warm and welcoming. Recent comments have thawed things a bit, I’m glad to say.

with apologies to Cath Tate cards

It seems that to those who don’t identify as ‘activist’ those of us that do are not as well thought of as we might like to believe, nor is what we do understood:

“How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?”

“as soon as you get a group going to build local resilience, that immediately attracts a lot of campaigners that say: “But if you believe in all this, why don’t you come to this or that?” The answer should be: “Because the time I use in campaigning isn’t used in building resilience locally in this or that way.” In reality, most people aren’t very strongly pro or anti campaigning, so they are swayed by whoever offers the most tempting package. And it usually the campaigner package is the most tempting, because it offers like-minded company and entertaining activities at a very low price: just be another one in this march, just put your signature there, just do this very little bit. Things like growing an allotment or organizing a local Energy Fair are way, way more work intensive, and a lot of the work isn’t as much fun, no matter how you try to make it fun.”

What I find interesting are the assumptions present here:

  • Activism is purely negative. “No”, “Stop”…etc (or as friend once put on their placard “Down with this sort of thing”. No sense of the positive worldview that might inspire people to try to prevent harm to humans, non-humans and the planet
  • Activists are not only not engaged in positive activity, but wouldn’t be any good at it if they were – hmmm see above
  • We wear balaclavas (implied violence??) – last balaclava I wore was probably aged 6 and almost certainly knitted by my nanna
  • If we engage with transition or similar movements it’s with an agenda, to get them to campaign (against their will) – now there may be a grain more truth in this one… but it’s certainly not true of all activists
  • That campaigning is easy, not time-consuming and great fun

What I find worrying are the possible consequences for community groups. Picture the scene: an activist who’s also keen to work locally and help build alternatives to the systems that s/he campaigns ‘against’ attends a transition meeting. Somewhere in that meeting s/he uses the word “activist” or “activism”. Worse still s/he uses it with reference to the assembled masses. Hackles are raised and the temperature gets a tad icy. Maybe our activist is told in no uncertain terms why transition is not activism and their sort shouldn’t try to make it so. Maybe nothing’s said and s/he returns home knowing that something’s wrong but not sure quite what. Another missed opportunity to build a stronger and more diverse movement….

If we can’t tolerate those who are fundamentally on side how are we going to build the resilient community that is at the heart of the transition ethos? If we make enemies of our friends, how will we deal with those we have least common ground with?

Falling off the high horse

Ah, but here’s the rub. Firstly reverse the scenario – are we the ‘activist’ movement really any different? A transitioner who’s keen to add an international, political element to their work walks into the meeting of her/his local direct action collective. How long before the hackles go up here? How long before s/he says something that’s not suitably anti-capitalist or direct action orientated (“we could visit our MP….”). OK so I’ve deliberately used a part of the movement that has a less mainstream culture and is harder to ‘join’ than, say, a local Friends of the Earth group. But are those more mainstream groups really exempt? Don’t all groups have a culture and aren’t cultures always a source of difference?And aren’t there as many assumptions made about those who choose not to campaign?

Secondly, how have we contributed to these assumptions being made? How have we communicated in a way that allows them to seem reasonable. There’s no reason to doubt that the authors are reasonable, intelligent and committed individuals and yet there are assumptions aplenty about the nature of activism. Have we communicated our difference in an exclusive manner?

And in conclusion

Back to the main thrust – how do we handle difference? How do we as folk that are committed to a better reality work to overcome that seemingly fundamental human trait of highlighting difference and using it as an excuse for having ‘power over’, for discrimination and oppression.

So a few thoughts for those of us doing capacity building work…. I’m more and more convinced that this needs to be central to the work we do. I know that recruitment and retention is a key issue in a lot of networks, often with a clear ‘difference’ problem (older group members having difficulty in recruiting younger people, for example). It’s not just about set piece responses. It’s not even just about the basic group dynamics stuff, though that can’t hurt. It’s about supporting and enabling ourselves and the groups we support to cultivate an attitude that helps them welcome difference.

And, crucially, that same attitude allows those same people to engage the wider world more effectively as campaigners, meeting people where they’re at. It also allows us to climb down off our moral high ground and see the more subtle human causes behind the issues we face and deal with them more intelligently.

I’ve been reading George Lakey’s latest book, Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners and I’m sure this won’t be the only reference in this blog over the next few months. George suggests that we need to suspend our attitude of judging difference and get back to simply being curious about it

“Curiosity is abundant in small children. By the time people are adults, judging seems to have replaced curiosity as the primary mental operation. As an impediment to intellectual development,the loss of curiosity is particularly marked whenever difference appears”

Recent news coverage of police officers beating up a submissive terror suspect remind me that this kind of behaviour is inevitable when we’re briefed to be afraid of difference and believe that difference is a threat to us. In this case the police were apparently briefed to expect violent resistance, and they acted out all of the fear, tension and excitement that the warning had created in them even though they didn’t meet the predicted resistance. Aren’t we activists sometimes the same? Aren’t we in danger of seeing all employees of certain corporations or government departments as ‘bad people’ and using that stereotype to legitimise inhumane treatment. Now, admittedly with activists that’s rarely the cause of administering a beating, but it can lead to other behaviour that fails to recognise and respect the full dignity of the human being we’re dealing with.

Back to where I started – how to work together in an atmosphere of difference and mutual respect, firstly with those with whom the differences are, relatively speaking, slight, and then with those with whom we are more profoundly different until we can honestly say we have the attitudes, skills and knowledge to create resilient and sustainable communities.

Please share your thoughts and experience.

Doing it by the Facebook

I understand the merits of Facebook as a campaigning tool.  By nature I tend to be averse to anything that’s a)mainstream corporate and b)so fashionable, but I’ve taken the time to listen to those that use it and understood what they see in it as an information and organising tool. More to the point I’ve often said that we need to meet people where they’re at, and Facebook is the cyber equivalent of setting up a stall in the local high street on a Saturday morning.

The danger is that we become seduced by the popularity of the medium. When I’m in the high street I’m not buying into all the corporate consumerist nonsense being advertised at me through countless shop windows. I’m using the space because it attracts people.

This is my appeal not to buy into the ‘promise’ of Facebook. They’re a useful tool as far as they go, but they can’t be relied on when push comes to shove (see below). We need a plan B, alternate technologies that have our best interest at heart. In that sense I’m a Luddite  –  a much misunderstood group who opposed “technologies harmful to the commonality” and not all technology per se.

And if you need any persuading, cast an eye over this week’s edition of radical news-sheet, schNEWS:

Whether you are orchestrating an uprising against an Arab dictator, or planning to wave a few placards to protest the closure of your local library, Facebook has rapidly become a key organising tool for activists around the world.

Facebook’s faceless masters however, seem to have taken issue with being a revolutionary weapon and have instigated a purge of pages of UK activist groups. Around 50 sites disappeared down the internet memory hole in a ‘night of the long nerds’ on April 29th. Anarchist, student and anti-cuts protest groups were amongst those pages erased. No warning was given and no permission asked.

Enraged by this outrageous but perhaps unsurprising political intervention from the multi-billion pound business, Bristol IMC [Indymedia Collective] investigated the closure of the Bristol Anarchist Bookfair page. They were informed the site had been disabled as it was an “inauthentic account” that violated Facebook’s “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities” by not providing a real first and last name. SchNEWS is now rifling through the phone book for the personal details of Mrs Clothing at Tesco, Ms Geeks Are Sexy and Mr R.I.P Raoul Moat You Legend…

If you were outraged at Google’s censorship of the internet in China, get outraged all over again. Let’s not sit by and let Facebook censor activism in the UK simply because we’ve come to see it as indispensable. I’m minded of the, admittedly, overused words of Pastor Niemoller and offer this version updated for the occasion (no offence to the Pastor):

First Facebook came for the anarchists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not an anarchist
Then they came for the direct activists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a direct activist
Then they came for the student activists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a student
Then they came for me
And there were no facebook friends left
To speak out for me

Here’s a link to a list of pages that have been deleted. A simple search on Scroogle will find you more info.

Peace News Summer Camp 2011

Let’s let Peace News folk speak for themselves:

Bring your contribution to a hothouse of creativity, a small self-governed society run by democratic camp meetings, a viable example of the kind of world we are trying to bring about. The Peace News Summer Camp helps build a radical movement for the future by building a living community today.

We are camping in a family friendly and renewably-powered way from 28 July to 1 August in the beautiful grounds of Crabapple Community, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

Activities include: workshops and discussions, practical skills sessions, delicious vegan food cooked by Veggies of Nottingham, music, film, fun and participatory entertainment, a bar, campfires, and activities and facilities for kids and families.

The census and your activist sensibilities

The census is creating a difficult tension for activists. Many folk are reluctant to fill it in knowing that the data is being processed by US arms company Lockheed Martin (whose fingers are in all kinds of other undesirable pies such as providing interrogators for Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, data processing for the CIA). But the data helps councils plan public services, and at this time of unprecedented attack on public services…..

I’ve come across a couple of responses. The first is conscientious objection. The second subversion.

Conscientious objection

I came across this at the bottom of an acquaintances email. I thought I’d take the liberty of sharing it because it’s a good summary of the issues:

We are not willing to complete the 2011 census unless the data is not processed by present contractor Lockheed Martin, one of the largest arms producers in the world. We oppose all arms sales and do not wish to co-operate with or contribute to the profit making work of an arms manufacturer. Lockheed Martin makes and sells nuclear weapons including the Trident missiles for both the UK and US nuclear weapons systems. It is the lead contractor running the Atomic Weapons Establishment which both maintains the nuclear warheads and is developing a new nuclear weapons system. It makes and sells cluster bombs. The use of both types of weapon is illegal as well being immoral.

We cannot allow our personal data to be processed by a US based company which carries out surveillance and data processing for the CIA and the FBI. Under the US Patriot Act the US Government can require access to the data held by a US Company. Lockheed Martin also provided interrogators for people detained outside the law at Guantanamo Bay.

We recognise the value of past censuses for planning needed public services. This census will however not be reliable because some people will be deterred from completing if the data will be processed by Lockheed Martin. It is also likely that the people most in need of decent public services and equal respect will be undercounted.


Those nice folk at Peace News have uploaded a couple of anonymous posts explaining how to fill in your census without allowing Lockheed Martin to profit or swelling the government’s coffers by up to £1000 if prosecuted and fined.

There’s the long and the short version. Here’s a few highlights:

Lockheed Martin is in it for the money. A principled stance by you to boycott the census will not hurt them, could provide the British Government with £1000 of your money and will make life harder for local authorities. The rational approach would be to take part in the census but make processing your return as expensive to process as possible for Lockheed Martin. Make sure that processing your return costs Lockheed Martin more that they allowed for in their tender. Don’t let them make a profit from your census return but do help to provide the data your council needs for its Government grants.

Every minute longer spent on a form than Lockheed Martin has budgeted for, will reduce their profit on the contract. It is realistic to assume that this extra cost to Lockheed Martin would be in the region of £1 per minute of extra time spent on your form if all the overheads are taken into account.Let’s assume that they plan, using their high speed computerised scanning and data capture technology, to process a form in, say, 5 minutes from receipt at their processing centre up to finished data capture.

If your form is going to take, say, at least 15 minutes because it is a little awkward to deal with (possibly longer if supervisory level staff has to resolve queries and problems), then you will have reduced Lockheed Martin’s profit by approximately £10, if not more. You can make it extremely time consuming by very simple means.

If (God forbid!) you wrote something down all wrong, you could either crossed it out firmly, and write the information somewhere else with a helpful arrow to the place where it should have been written, or you could glue, sellotape or staple another piece of paper in the approximate place on top of the erroneous entry and write the correct information on it. In either case, the computers scanner will not be able to read the information and will refer it back to a human being to deal with.

The same applies to box ticking. There will many of boxes to tick. It is so easy to tick the wrong boxes in all the excitement. It is best to firmly cross it all out and write in the margin, or wherever there is some space, something like: “Sorry, it should have been this one”, with an arrow pointing in the approximate direction.

The things some people get up to! I ask you…….